Anxious and insecure Black high school student Melody enters a school storage room with a key; she retrieves a sandwich from her meticulously packed lunchbox, and bursts into tears after taking her first bite.
Melody suddenly hears a sound at the door; she jumps up and grabs a baseball bat. After a moment, Nathan, who has jimmied the door open with a pocketknife, bursts in carrying personal items stolen from the school counselor’s office.
Thus begins a season of clandestine lunchtime meets in the storage room between Nathan and Melody in Eliana Pipes’ Bite Me, a world premiere play currently in house at the WP Theater. Despite Nathan’s defensive, rebellious nature and Melody’s insecure demeanor, they continue to press at each other’s boundaries; the cultural gap between them slowly narrows and a cautious friendship starts to form. Their misfit alliance continues to grow over the course of the school year, flecked with sparks of sexual tension and pangs of class difference.
It is the rare person who doesn’t look back at his or her high school experience with a shrewd gaze. High school is a wild kingdom of raging hormones, unprecedented peer pressure, and impressionable egos; it is a world where teenagers either eat or get eaten, and the fittest spit out the bones of their prey between classes. Nathan and Melody are two such teens, making their way through this jungle, sizing each other up and deciding to form an alliance for safety. Although they are the only two characters on the stage, the cacophony of their off-stage enemies is as real to us as it is to them. (Sound designer is Tosin Olufolabi.)
David Garelik’s portrayal of Nathan, a typically privileged, troubled teen on the brink of adulthood and addiction, is classic, yet subtly dimensioned with contrasting notes of anguish, darkness, and endearment. Malika Samuel’s performance as Melody is even richer; she deftly navigates the space between self-doubt and self-confidence, the struggle of belonging and being an outcast, and the heat of young love and its rebuff. Her performance ranges from playful and joyful to yearning and heartbreaking.
Both Garelik and Samuel’s performances as teens are fully formed and not stereotyped; their portrayals as young adults at their ten-year high school reunion are just as authentic. Direction by Rebecca Martínez is terrific, guiding both actors organically through their curiously intimate and emotionally climactic moments, at both stages of their characters’ young lives.
Pipes has written an excellent play; she draws the disparate socio-economic and racial lines between Nathan and Melody with a fine pen. The arc and landscape of their friendship and its ultimate struggle is carefully wrought and effective.
The scenic design by Chika Shimizu is effective and intricate; it reflects the storage room on three sides, providing an immersive space and a variety of props for Garelik and Samuel to move through, around, and with. The excellent lighting design by Lucrecia Briceno supports mood and transition effectively, and Sarita Fellows’ costume design accurately reflects Nathan and Melody’s characters.
Bite Me is an engaging, thought-provoking story of two teens who escape from the anarchy of their youth and find success on their terms, but not without scars. This play is worth a look.
Bite Me (through October 22, 2023)
WP Theater and Colt Coeur
WP Theater, 2162 Broadway at 76th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets visit http://www.wptheater.org/show/bite-me/
Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission